President Rodrigo Duterte leads the inspection of the newly acquired military assets during the 84th anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at the Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on Dec. 17, 2019. RICHARD MADELO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

There is an urgent need for the Philippines to increase defense spending to cushion the anticipated impact of the possible loss of United States security assistance to the military, if the country wants to boost its modest capability to develop a credible defense posture.

Washington, a long-time security ally and former colonial master, has been pouring an average of $50 million in military aid under the US State Department’s foreign military financing (FMF), excess defense articles (EDA), and international military education and training programs (IMETP) every year since 2000, in exchange for the active presence of American military forces in the Philippines on rotation basis.

The total security package, which includes counter-terrorism, narcotics control and law enforcement, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, exercises-related construction activities and civil works, could exceed a billion dollars over the 20-year period.

The fund has helped the Philippine military sustain and prolong the life cycles of its second-hand US equipment, like helicopters and cutters; boosted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities; and introduced local military commanders to complex warfighting operations, like ship-to-shore operations, urban warfare counter-terrorism techniques and strategies, and airborne assault operations.

Practical lessons were also learned through exchanges and sharing of best practices during large-scale combined and joint exercises, like the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder), Salaknib and Kamandag activities, which are evolving into multilateral drills with the participation of Australian and Japanese troops in some of the events.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. told a recent Senate inquiry the Americans would likely spend $200 million in fiscal year 2020-2021 to help upgrade facilities in some local military bases where the US was allowed access, like the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa in Palawan, Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga, and Fort Ramon Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.

There was also a long-term plan to develop a jungle base for the Marines Corps in Ulugan Bay in Palawan, transforming Oyster Bay into a mini-Subic base on the western coastline of Palawan facing the South China Sea.

These are huge projects that would require large investments for the Philippines, but the United States has offered to help build necessary infrastructure in these strategic operating bases. The Philippines is eyeing more outposts in Balabac Island in southern Palawan; Guiwan in Eastern Samar and Lallo in northern Luzon.

Since 2012, US military spending in the region has been on an upswing, with new programs like the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative under President Barack Obama, who sought to pivot US foreign policy to the Asia and Pacific region.

The Maritime Security Initiative funded “maritime domain awareness” projects for Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in the South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands, as well as in the dangerous waters around Celebes and Sulu seas where pirates and Islamist militants operate.

Under President Donald Trump, a $15-billion Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) was passed in Congress to help Washington’s allies in the region, including Australia, enhance their capabilities to share the burden in a keeping a safe, stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific region.

Manila was given priority under Obama’s Maritime Security Initiative, obtaining close to $100 million, or more than 50 percent of the program’s allocation for Southeast Asia. Under Trump’s ARIA, Manila’s share was slashed due to Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal and deadly war on drugs, a key concern in Washington’s political circles.

US financial assistance goes a long way to help boost local defense capability. But the military aid is too small compared with billions of dollars given by Washington to Middle East allies, like Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Pakistan. Still, the Philippines gets far more than any other country in the region.

Japan and South Korea are spending more to keep the United States permanently on their soil. The Philippines gets support for allowing US forces access to its bases on a temporary basis.

This year, the Philippines is spending close to P200 billion on defense out of its P4.1-trillion annual budget. This is about 1.1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), one of the lowest among Southeast Asia countries.

More affluent countries like Singapore allocate more than 3 percent of GDP to defense spending. Singapore has one of the most modern and capable armed forces in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam also outspend the Philippines.

Unlike its neighbors, 60 percent to 70 percent of the Philippines’s annual defense budget go to personnel services, or the salaries, allowances and pensions of soldiers. About 20 percent to 30 percent of the budget are used for maintenance and operating expenses, and less than 10 percent go to capital outlay.

The military’s old assets are too expensive to maintain and operate, consume more fuel and easily break down. The old US coast guard cutters spend more time on docks than on patrol in the exclusive economic zone waters.

There is hardly enough cash to purchase new weapons systems to play catch up with other Southeast Asian countries, which have multi-role fighters, main battle tanks, missile-capable frigates and conventional submarines.

Even if the Philippines has a separate P25-billion annual allocation for the military’s modernization program, the entire 15-year, $6 billion modernization fund is not enough for the already ambitious plan to just match the capabilities of other Southeast Asian states.

There is an urgent need to accelerate the modernization program to offset the anticipated loss of US security assistance.

A quarter of century ago, political leaders and defense planners wanted to cut down on the number of military personnel and boost technology and assets, but lack of funds, coupled with the 1998 Asian financial crisis and political crisis in 2000, delayed the plans.

In the 2000s, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo refocused her security policy in defeating the Maoist-led New People’s Army (NPA) and Islamist militant threats from the south. Ending the twin insurgencies will help refocus the military to its external defense role, leaving the peace and order problem to the Philippine National Police.

But President Rodrigo Duterte has other ideas. He expanded the military, raised their salaries and gave his generals the go-signal to acquire new weapons. Military spending has increased incrementally but not adequate for the Armed Forces of the Philippines to stand on its feet without US support.

The executive and the legislative must agree to heed the plea of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to increase the level of defense spending to at least 2 percent of GDP to fast-track the modernization program.

The Philippines’s current GDP stands at $330 billion. Spending about P300 billion on defense next year is a better prescription to address the loss of active US presence in the country. It’s a bitter pill to swallow in the interest of national security.